Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language
Development. "Project." "Strategy." "Problem." These may seem like harmless words, but are they? German writer and linguist Uwe Poerksen calls these words "plastic words" because of their malleability and the uncanny way they are used to fit every circumstance. Like plastic Lego blocks, they are combinable and interchangeable. In the mouths of experts--politicians, professors, corporate officials, and planners--they are used over and over again to explain and justify plans and projects. In the 1940s Harry S. Truman made "underdevelopment" a keystone in U.S. foreign policy, and today the "developed" nations are dedicated to helping their "underdeveloped" neighbors. But who benefits from "development"? Who benefited from the housing "projects" of the 1960s and 1970s? And who among us does not worry when our leaders tell us they have a "strategy" for solving society's "problems"?
According to Poerksen, plastic words began as scientific words with specialized meanings. Many had been imported from the vernacular languages to the sciences, but he finds that in recent decades they have migrated back into the vernacular--stripped of their specialized meanings. They have international currency and appear repeatedly in political speeches, government reports, and academic conferences. They invade the media and even private conversation. They displace more precise words with words that sound scientific but actually blur meaning and disable common language.
Poerksen traces the history of plastic words, establishes criteria for identifying them, and provides a tragicomic critique of the society that relies on them. He shows that when plastic words infiltrate a field of reality, they reorder it in their own image--hence their threat. They are building blocks for new models of reality that may seem utopian but that impoverish the world.
Plastic Words is a translation of the remarkably successful book first published in Germany in 1988. For the English-language edition, Poerksen has added a new preface, explaining the origin of the book and addressing the spirited public debate it has spawned. Bold and provocative, Plastic Words is social and linguistic criticism in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and George Orwell.
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